Saturday, July 7, 2012

Hints on Birding from an Alaska Cruise Ship

My posts are a good starting point for birders taking an Alaska cruise. I began my planning by using some excellent resources (and I would recommend them all):
  • An excellent trip report by Jim Holmes. There are other trip reports about birding Alaska via a cruise ship. Jim Holmes discusses birding from the ship with a scope, delineating specific seabirds he was able to see. Very informative and well-worth reading.
  • Birder’s Guide to Alaska by George C. West. In addition to reading about our specific ports, there was also excellent information about islands we would be passing as well as “tips” about birding in the Gulf of Alaska. Peruse the book carefully and thoroughly. You might even find treasures I missed.
  • Birdfinder: A Birder’s Guide to Planning North American Trips by Jerry A. Cooper. Their chapter on birding Alaska is for June (exactly when we were there). It offers information regarding what birds you can find, specific directions, and a feel for a birding trip with fits and starts.
  • Birder’s Guide to Washington by Hal Opperman (for our day in Victoria, BC). We simply photocopied the section on Victoria. FYI, since our focus here was the Sky Lark I emailed anyone and everyone I could find with links to birding in Victoria until I got a reply letting us know they were best seen at the fields around the airport.
  • Guide to the Birds of Alaska by Robert H. Armstrong (as an adjunct to our primary use of Sibley’s field guide). I liked Armstrong’s book for its written information more than the limited photos of the different birds. It gave me seasonal and regional likelihoods for seeing specific birds, as well as excellent written descriptions to help with identification.
  • Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer by DeLorme We used this in conjunction with the navigational channel’s latitude and longitude readings on our television (also available in the Crow’s Nest Lounge and the Explorer’s Cafe). Specifically, we were interested in the times we were going to pass certain breeding areas, such as the Barren Islands on the way to Kodiak, or when we were going to enter certain bodies of water.
  • I’m assuming the posts tell about birding in specific ports or on specific excursions. In this post I’m going to expound specifically on birding from the actual cruise ship, something Holmes does well.
We were on Holland America’s ms Amsterdam, a reasonably-sized ship holding 1380 passengers. The ship had 11 decks (including the lowest deck with no cabins and the “partial” top deck called the Sports Deck).

My first suggestion is to know thy ship! We explored the ship and, even then, found new and wonderful places to set up our scope later in the cruise.

Specific to the ms Amsterdam, you can find a deck plan here and here’s what we learned:
Main Deck: If you go to the stern of the ship there’s an area close to the water. The view off the back requires a high setting on the tripod because of the solid wall under the railing. There’s also some vibration from the engine below, making scoping difficult at times. However, on a cold day there’s some heat coming up from the opening to the engine room making cold days a bit less cold.


Lower Promenade Deck: The walkway goes completely around the ship here. However, the area at the bow is blocked (I assume against the winds). There are decent views off the sides and stern of the ship. Again, the tripod needs to be set a bit higher to clear the railing.


We didn’t explore the areas between the Promenade and the Verandah decks, so I’ll jump to:
Navigation Deck: We didn’t discover this jewel until quite late in the cruise. If you walk through the hallways to the stern of the ship, you can go out onto an open area with open railing. Here you can comfortably sit in the deck chairs and bird comfortably. We even took some blankets from the Lido Deck on a chilly evening.

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Lido Deck: We settled on this as our favorite place to set up the scope and bird. We were able to see off the sides of the ship as well as to its back. We were able to see ahead of the ship a bit, spotting birds as we approached them so we could get a good bead on them as we passed.


Sports: We walked up to the Sports Deck from the port (left) side of the ship when it was getting nasty and windy out. We tucked ourselves in behind the tennis court enclosure and set the scope to view over the railing. It was still chilly, the the enclosure broke the wind beautifully while we were still able to get clear views to the front and side.


We never went up to the Sky Deck.

As for the experience of Pelagic birding (our first), especially without a guide, it was a learning curve. Here’s what we learned.

You’re not going to see most of the birds with your naked eye. Our joking rule was, “If you can see it with your naked eye, it’s an Albatross.” So use your binoculars to scan the water!

We were lucky there were two of us. One of us could stay on the bird while the other tried to get on it with the scope. I’d say we had about a sixty to seventy percent rate for success on this. Eventually we found it was just easier to take turns scanning the water with the scope.

It takes time, but you’ll develop a skill for positioning the scope so birds will come into view as you switch to the next person (taking into account the mutual movement of the birds and the ship).
Study your field guide before you travel (good advice for any birding trip). Try and learn the subtle differences between Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwater, and between the Black-footed, Laysan, and Short-tailed Albatross.

Learn size and movement differential. We learned Murrelets are the tiny little things we would see sitting on the water, taking off as the ship passed. Storm-Petrels are very similar to Swallows over the water. Shearwaters were exactly that, they would fly with wings extended right over the surface of the water.

Most importantly, STAY ON THE BIRD! When you get a bird in your scope or binoculars, keep looking at it. Save the guide for when you’ve lost the bird. Check out the size, the shape, the behavior, and any markings you can distinguish. How long is the bill (if you can see it)? Can you see the legs? What color are they? Is the bird light or dark? How does it compare to other, similar birds? What are the proportions? What shape is the head? The tail? The wings? All this will help determine the family and, hopefully, the species.

Equipment (in case you’re a bit earlier in your birding career or feel you need to re-equip):

I traveled with my Pentax 8x32 binoculars. Avie had his Swarovski EL 8x32. The scope was a Swarovski HD 80mm scope with the zoom eyepiece.

Avie invested in a good Manfrotto 128RC fluid head for the trip and this was invaluable when we had a bird in the scope as a moving target, enabling us to stay with it for as long as it was within viewing range.

We retrofitted it to his old Tiltall Leitz tripod. A decent Manfrotto tripod showed up at Costco before the trip, but we stuck with what we knew (and had).

If you’re going on an Alaska cruise and have questions I haven’t answered, please email me here: april-g at satx dot rr dot com.


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